Ryan Holiday manipulates the media for a living. He is a media strategist for various clients, including Tucker Max and American Apparel, whose founder says that Holiday "has done more for my business than just about anyone."
His forthcoming book, "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator" (Portfolio, $26.95/$12.99 ebook, published July 19th) promises to reveal the secrets of how to trick the media into sharing your message.
Why is Holiday revealing his methods? Because he hates the current system, and he wants to break it.
His book trailer, above, is both provocative and intriguing. We interviewed Holiday on the phone about the news cycle, how he never gets caught, and why he hopes his book will "blow the system apart."
How did you get involved in the area of media manipulation?
Very early on in this web 2.0 world, there was this [attitude of] citizen journalism, we’re changing the media, everything is different now, the truth will out -- this is the future and the future is always better. And I very much bought into that.
Then I saw how it worked, and I had to come to terms with the difference between perception and reality.
What was your first piece of manipulation?
I was working for someone and we wanted a blogger to write about a product. We couldn’t pitch to them directly because they’d never write about it, so we sent them a big email pretending to be a fan. The next day, they had a post up about it. There was a very clear relationship between cause and effect, and that cause was something less than fully reputable.
Have you ever been caught?
Not really. Here’s what I’ve realized: even though these things are buried not very far below the surface, nobody wants to look. It’s a deliberate suspension of disbelief.
If people thought about what they’re writing about, half of these bloggy, slideshow-heavy, crazy-headlined pieces would never run. And that would really drive down the page views.
I think it was Jay Rosen who said that the number one job of the journalist is to get to the truth, and I feel that in online journalism, most of the big sites have abdicated that role.
Are media outlets becoming wise your tactics?
The turnover is so great at these sites, and everyone is under so much pressure, so I’d say that the game is getting easier rather than harder.
What about traditional, newsprint media?
The online cycle drives the offline cycle. The old media system is not going to run a story based on an anonymous tip from a random person in the way that Gawker might, but they do report about what the blogosphere is chatting about. That’s something I exploit pretty often.
Is this a new phenomenon?
What really drove me to write this book is that there’s a bunch of parallels between today and where journalism was 100-120 years ago. The economics then were that you didn’t subscribe to a newspaper, you bought it on the street corner every day, and you bought the one that had the best headline.
Today, there are people who always read the Huffington Post, but the vast majority will read individual articles when they get sent around, which creates a world focused on single stories rather than a big, quality product.
I don’t think this is new, and that almost makes it more inexcusable. But I think it’s worse than it’s ever been because the cycle is so much faster, and there are so many more eyeballs on the stories than there have ever been before.
And the effects are so instantaneous. You look at someone like Shirley Sherrod. A blog breaks a crappy story, and a few hours later, the President of the United States is personally apologizing to this woman who was ravaged by the cycle. That’s certainly new.
Is your book a complaint about the current media landscape?
The first half of my book is exactly how to manipulate it, and the second half is what that means and why it’s bad.
A lot of books have been written criticizing how the internet works, written by academics or out-of-work journalists. But outside of people who really care about media, nobody takes them seriously. So I thought that the most effective way to get my tactics to stop working is lay them all out exactly how to do them, step by step.
Does that mean your tactics won’t work any more?
Specific tactics may have reduced efficiency, but I’m talking more about what forces make those tactics work. If you think about a blogger who is paid by the page view, it’s very clear what sort of stories you would write, and how you can have leverage over that person.
It’s a volume game, which is inevitably going to be a race to the bottom. And that’s a pretty good description of how the blogosphere works these days.
Do you enjoy your job?
There was a mantra that if you do good stuff, people will find it – it’s a democracy. I realized that that’s just not true. I only work for people I want to work for, and in order to get them the attention and audience they deserve, I realized I’d have to play to these rules that I didn’t agree with but that I understood. I think it’s taken a toll on me to have to split myself that way.
This book is about blowing the system apart.
What is your ideal outcome?
Once the public knows what’s going on, I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult for these self-interested people to make decisions on the readers’ behalf that are really not in their readers’ interests.
And if that doesn’t happen?
I guess I’ll probably get a lot more work.
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